This is my third post on the mythology and symbolism associated with the pilgrimage route El Camino de Santiago de Compostela. See my previous post for more background.
The ancient Maya believed that the portal to the otherworld was in an area of the Milky Way that is always dark, and this was in the vicinity of the constellation of Orion; the tribes of the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex (SECC) also seemed to believe in a dark hole in the sky situated in Orion’s belt that allowed souls to pass to the next world. The symbol the SECC used to represent this was a motif called the “Eye in the Hand” by modern researchers. The “eye” was the portal, the “hand” was part of the constellation of Orion. This portal could be accessed at certain times of the year when the constellation dipped below the horizon (underworld) at a certain time of night. (We do not know if the Maya had the Hand Constellation in their astronomy as the tribes of the SECC did, but we do know that in the myth of the Maya hero twins who put the cosmos in order, one of the twins lost his arm in a fight with a monster. Since the monster was the Big Dipper, we might surmise that the hero’s arm was also a constellation).
In European myth the giant Orion is not well understood because not much of his story has survived in written accounts. What we do know is that he was the son of Poseidon the sea god and had the ability to walk on water, as well as having a strong association generally with the sea and probably the rising and setting of the sun on the sea.
I have already mentioned the similar symbolism of the Tarot card of the Fool and the icons of Saint Roch found all along the Camino de Santiago. Both resemble Orion with Canis Major. It is possible that Santiago himself is just a Christianized form of Orion, since he is also associated with the sea off the coast of Spain, and of course, the scallop shell.
Scallop shells are found on the beaches around Finisterre and the Costa da Morte, and seem to be originally a symbol of the sea goddess there. Later a story was concocted about Saint James (Santiago), and how his body was accidentally dumped in the ocean and re-emerged covered in these shells and that is why the shell is now his symbol. What is important is only that this scallop shell is strongly associated with the pilgrimage and its aims. Pilgrims even today attach a scallop shell to their backpack before beginning the journey.
It is possible that this scallop is a variant of the Eye in the Hand, the SECC icon of the underworld portal in the sky. Most stylistic renderings of the scallop shell do not look like a shell. They resemble the setting sun, which is acknowedged to be another symbolism of the shell. The setting sun itself carries the same esoteric meaning, a portal to the world of the dead when it sets below the waves of the sea. It is interesting to note as well that the scallop is sometimes said to represent a vulva, which certainly makes sense if it belonged to a sea goddess originally. But the “eye” in the Eye in Hand symbol could be a vulva, too, it’s just usually interpreted to be an eye. In any case a vulva would be a perfect representation of a portal to another world of being.